IN a simple, succinct homily, Pope Francis yesterday outlined his vision for a humble, caring papacy which will endeavour to protect the poor and respect the environment.
On his first official day as leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, the 76-year-old pontiff called on global leaders and ordinary citizens alike to take heed of his message of benevolence, describing how they could “open up a horizon of hope”.
Speaking before a crowd of nearly 200,000 who had gathered under blue skies in St Peter’s Square, the Argentinian used his inaugural Mass to reinforce the image of a man approaching his task like a parish priest as opposed to a papal monarch or theologian.
In a brief homily which emphasised the need to protect “the last we think about”, the first pope from Latin America was interrupted by applause several times as he spoke about how people should serve one another with love and not allow “omens of destruction”, hatred, envy and pride to “defile our lives”.
Tellingly, the word, “tenderness” featured no fewer than five times in his address.
His role, he said, was to open his arms and protect all of humanity, but “especially the poorest, the weakest, the least important, those whom Matthew lists in the final judgment on love: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and those in prison.”
He added: “Today amid so much darkness we need to see the light of hope and to be men and women who bring hope to others.
“To protect creation, to protect every man and every woman, to look upon them with tenderness and love, is to open up a horizon of hope, it is to let a shaft of light break through the heavy clouds.”
An hour shorter than the first Mass of his predecessor, Benedict, the occasion allowed Francis to spell out his intentions as leader of the Church and Bishop of Rome.
He would, he explained, be inspired by the example of the “lowly concrete service” of St Joseph, whose feast day coincided with the Mass.
Wearing simple attire, with the ornate gold cross of Benedict replaced by one made of iron, he also addressed the powerful political leaders who attended St Peter’s Square, among them United States vice-president Joe Biden and German chancellor Angela Merkel. They should, Francis said, be “protectors of creation, protectors of God’s plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment”.
Among the religious VIPs attending was the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, Bartholomew I, who became the first patriarch from the Istanbul-based church to attend a papal investiture since the two branches of Christianity split nearly 1,000 years ago.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Justin Welby, who completed his prayer pilgrimage yesterday in advance of his enthronement on Thursday, was represented by the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu.
The Queen was represented by the Duke of Gloucester.
Those in attendance welcomed the address by Francis, none more so than his fellow Argentinians.
Cardinal Leonardi Sandri said: “For me this is a call to humility and service to others that will mark his papacy. This is a new breeze of fresh air that is blowing through the Church and the name of that breeze is Francis.”
Cirigliano Valetin, a 51-year-old Argentine electrician, said of the Pope: “He is a simple, humble person. He is not like the untouchable popes – he seems like someone normal people can reach out to.”
Earlier, the 266th pontiff thrilled the crowd at the start of the Mass by taking a trip through the piazza and getting out of his open-top vehicle to bless a disabled man.
For nearly half an hour before the Mass began, he toured the square, waving, shouting “Ciao!” to well-wishers and occasionally kissing babies handed up to him.
After the Mass, Francis spent nearly two hours greeting each of the government delegations in St Peter’s Basilica, chatting warmly and animatedly with each one, kissing the few youngsters who came along with their parents and occasionally blessing a rosary given to him. Unlike his predecessors, he did so in just his white cassock, not the red mozzetta cape.
Large crowds also gathered in Plaza de Mayor, the main square in Buenos Aires, to watch the Mass broadcast on a giant screen. They cheered when a call from the Pope, made an hour before his Mass, was played via loudspeakers.
“I want to ask you to walk together, and take care of one another,” he told them. “And don’t forget that this bishop who is far away loves you very much. Pray for me.”